Politics, when accomplished effectively, resembles a dance where disparate partners create harmony — or at least something more tuneful than what came before.

By that standard, some of Gov. Janet Mills’s Democratic colleagues are more adept at the delicate steps required to match the rising aspirations of Maine’s Indian tribes.

Admittedly, it’s not easy. Long after the original dispossession through relentless European expansion, all now agree tribes are in some way “sovereign” — but what does that mean?

Under federal law and treaties, tribes deal directly with the federal government much as states do — except in Maine.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, left, and Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, applaud after Chief William Nicholas Sr., chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkomikuk, took the podium for State of the Tribes Joint Convention of the House and Senate Thursday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Here, the state’s 1980 Land Claims Settlement Act effectively reduces tribes to municipalities. One can argue, as all governors have since then, that tribes gave up rights in exchange for $82 million to acquire land.

But after four decades it looks like — and is — an increasingly bad bargain. Maine tribes continue to fall farther behind tribes elsewhere, denied federal benefits they’d otherwise receive.


During the triumphant return to the Capitol last week of the State of the Tribes address, Congressman Jared Golden, who flew back from Washington, was conspicuous on the rostrum. Gov. Mills, who works in the building, did not attend because of a “scheduling conflict.”

There was a similar contretemps last month when the Judiciary Committee heard a bill from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, L.D. 78, to restore to the printed state Constitution an original section detailing the state’s tribal treaty obligations, inherited from Massachusetts upon statehood.

In 1876, for reasons that remain obscure, voters approved an amendment that didn’t repeal the section but stopped printing it. Talbot Ross’s proposed amendment would print it again.

Everyone agrees this would have no practical effect; federal and state obligations were subsumed in the 1980 settlement acts. The bill is endorsed by both Attorney General Aaron Frey and Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, whose office proposes recodifications.

It’s opposed by the governor’s office, however. Legal Counsel Gerald Reid claims printing the section would “create new confusion” because a naïve reader might “wrongly believe” that this “revitalizes 18th and 19th century treaty obligations.”

This seems Orwellian: The section is still part of the Constitution, but actually printing it would “confuse” readers because they’d leap to unwarranted conclusions. This may not be book-banning, but it’s close.


As governor, Mills has supported the tribes, from the symbolic — renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day — to the economically substantive — granting exclusive rights to online gaming proceeds.

Yet she takes positions that seem petty — the printed Constitution bill — or miss opportunities for reconciliation: skipping the State of the Tribes.

Other opportunities remain. One might be an apparent deadlock at the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee over a bill, L.D. 294, sponsored by Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, that would add a tribal member to the Baxter State Park Authority.

In the well-known story, Gov. Percival Baxter gave Mt. Katahdin and 200,000 acres surrounding it to the state over several decades after finding no interest from the Legislature in acquiring it. He also endowed the park, and included highly specific deeds and covenants.

From the beginning, the three-member authority has been made up of the commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Maine Forest Service director, and the Attorney General. Adding a tribal member, according to AG Frey, would violate the deeds of trust and possibly cause the land to revert to Baxter’s heirs.

It’s serious business. When the Department of Conservation was formed, incorporating the Forest Service, and the new commissioner was proposed as a replacement, it was nonetheless firmly rejected.


Mills served for eight years on the park authority, and like most who do, she developed a healthy appreciation both for the park’s mission and its unique place in Maine’s history.

She also understands the Penobscot Tribe’s unique affinity for Katahdin, extending back to ancient times and forward to former Chief Barry Dana, who initiated the Katahdin 100 — a “spiritual run” from the river to the mountain — in the fateful year of 1980, and whose daughter Maulian is now tribal ambassador.

Even aside from the authority, tribal members have little involvement in the park’s management and advisory committees, and their participation is overdue. One notes that two of the three park authority members are Executive Branch employees.

It would be more than a gesture if Mills, who did not offer testimony on L.D. 294, were to convene a working group exploring how the state and tribes could collaborate in celebrating and extending Maine’s wilderness character, so magnificently exemplified by what Percival Baxter called “the mountain of the people of Maine.”

All the people.

That would be a dance worth watching.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books, and is now researching the life and career of a U.S. Chief Justice. He welcomes comment at: drooks@tds.net

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